Second Wind

As he reached the end of the driveway, it started raining, and Tom nearly turned around and headed back inside.

He stood at the mailbox for about three minutes, if it was that long. It could have been an hour that he stared at the cold black-painted tin, the red plastic flag aimed skyward as if to exclaim something he couldn’t read or hear. Impulsively, he opened the box, but it was empty.

The red plastic flag seemed to glow in the diminishing sunlight. Demanding to be noticed.

Tom set one foot, tied tight into a brand-new gray cross-trainer, against the dirt road ahead of him, and started running.

It hurt. A lot. He used to get shin splints when he would play soccer in middle school and they seared with a vengeance now. Despite the rain, he could feel himself go to sweating almost instantaneously. Tom’s extra weight bounced around his waist and chest and he felt like a leper under the bright halogen scrutiny of each passing car.

Pavement and puddles slapped under the fresh shoes with the sound of meat dropping to the cutting board, and he got the distinct impression of the sound echoing his body’s struggle, its unwillingness to participate. He ignored it and counteracted the feeling by dialing up the volume on the mp3 player he carried in his left hand.

Tom found himself wheezing and he struggled to focus his mind on something – anything – that would keep his attention off his own sorry excuse for a body. He cycled through any thoughts he could come up with: school, television shows, recent movies, new albums, moments with friends; but of course Tom’s thoughts eventually settled on Tuesday night at the Library Pub.

It was bustling and crowded for the nightly drink specials and because it was one of the only places the newly graduated or still-enthralled students could go drink while they were away from college. Tom, of course, had never left town, unlike most of the kids he’d gone to high school with. His grades and his family’s finances hadn’t been enough to send him to the illustrious state university along with every single person who’d graduated with him.

He hated it here, but it was Demetri’s birthday and he’d insisted. Tom didn’t see those guys much anymore – really only when they happened to be home for a holiday or he could muster enough gas money to make the two-hour trip out to one of their parties – so he’d gone, grudgingly, knowing full well that it would be like lunch in the school cafeteria, only more irritating.

Tom had been the last to arrive. He’d purposely let an extra forty minutes pass before heading out to the bar, which was only a half-mile down the street from his parents’ house anyway.

At first he’d drifted through the smoky bar, which was alternately themed with pool tables and shelves of books, as if the owners couldn’t make up their minds as to atmosphere. The whole place was lit green by jade-shaded plastic fluorescents, giving it harsh white glare over tables like a prison and a soft glow that made it difficult to get around anywhere else.

He sat down heavily beside Jason at a shiny wooden table that caught the light and bounced it into Tom’s eyes as if off stainless steel. The other guys were through a beer or two each. Tom wished Demitri a happy birthday, giving him a handshake over the table, squinting through the light. Jason clapped him on the back.

“Starting to wonder if you were gonna show up,” he called over the music.

Tom just gave a thin-lipped smile.

Across the round table, Hugh leaned so he was closer to the center. He was midway through a story.

“So this girl is gorgeous,” he said, looking from face to face. “I mean, I would have gone for her.”

He shot a glance back at Daphne beside him and gave her a grin. She returned it with a little punch on his thigh.

“She was pretty hot. So I figure, I’ll put Marcus onto her, she seems nice and he could stand to get laid,” Hugh continued. “So I bring him a couple drinks from the kitchen – this girl is into screwdrivers, and I mean into screwdrivers – and send him over.”

“Is Marcus coming out tonight?” Tom asks, interrupting. Marcus was his preferred Sommerville brother. Hugh was a little more…hard to handle.

Hugh shrugged. “I thought so, but who knows, maybe he’s banging his babysitter.

“Anyway,” Hugh said, stretching the word to indicate his annoyance at the delay, “He goes over with these screwdrivers and offers one to her, and she gives him this big smile, and I think, ‘Well done, me.’”

Hugh paused to look around at his audience. Tom waited for their eyes to meet and Hugh to move on before releasing the heavy sigh that was building in his chest.

His feet were pounding pavement somewhere, his shirt soaking with sweat, and he was already sick of this scene. Tom had turned out for the birthday festivities, and he had known going in that he’d have fun with the guys like always, but somehow he already felt distant.

The sky grew bloated, purple and gray, the air around him going thick and hazy with darkness and moisture. Tom’s muscles burned from head to foot, front to back. He could feel tension building in his shoulders and tried to relax his hands. He could feel impacts welling up in his knees. The word “atrophy” tracked through Tom’s mind.

Ahead he saw some bike-riding silhouettes. High school kids, he guessed from their sideways hats and low pants. They were meandering on the upcoming chunk of sidewalk.

Tom adjusted his stride and stepped down off the curb onto the street to avoid them.

“So I look over a little later, and this girl and Marcus are gone,” Hugh nearly bellowed over the drowning tide of full-bar conversation and what passed among their generation for music. Tom looked back toward the door, scanning it for a second, before turning back to the story. He caught Daphne’s eye, watching him, as he brought his attention back to Hugh.

“I ask around and people are saying they saw them out on the porch. So I put my head up to the window on top of the door – and there’s this hot chick, standing there with two cups in her hand, and there’s my jackass brother, bent over the railing and puking into the bushes.”

Jason and Demetri laughed heartily. Tom cracked a smile, but really, most of Hugh’s were generally the same. And all spoke to an experience – a college experience – of which Tom had little or no understanding. These stories brought up images of “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Animal House” for him. That was about as far as the recognition extended.

“So what happened to him?” Jason asked. Tom heard thick enthusiasm in his voice.

“No one is really sure,” Hugh replied, chuckling. “It was his second drink of the night. He just hauled off and started puking for no reason.

“Although, looking back – and don’t tell Marcus this, he’ll kick my ass – but I think that orange juice might have been there when we moved in.”

Jason, Demetri and Hugh laughed again. Tom caught Daphne’s eyes – she’d heard it before and grinned only for Hugh’s benefit.

Tom smiled too, a little, and asked, “What happened with the girl?”

Hugh almost gagged on the beer he’d been pouring back from the thick glass bar mug as Tom asked the question. Now he slammed it down and looked toward the other man, his face alight.

“I almost forgot! She took him home!”

“You’re kidding,” Demetri said, leaning up toward the table, suddenly captivated.

Hugh struggled to breathe, drink and speak at the same time.

“No,” he returned, wiping beer foam from his thin face and thinner brown beard and mustache. “No, I’m serious. She thought he was cute, they talked for the rest of the night and she took him home. I mean, it ended as soon as he mentioned he had a kid. He seemed pretty into her thou
gh. You know, for, like, that couple days.”

Now it was Daphne who leaned in, brilliant green eyes piercing Tom. “Speaking of girls,” she muttered in a low, mischievous tone. “Did you ever ask out Caitlin?”

Tom blushed and immediately hated the feeling. He leaned back and folded his arms over his chest.

“I’ve talked to her some,” he returned.

“So no,” Hugh said, laughing.

“You know, she’s coming out tonight,” Demetri said. “Or at least, she was supposed to.”

Tom involuntarily looked back at the door, right in front of everyone looking at him, and when he turned back he felt their stupid gazes, screaming “Ah ha!” as if he’d been holding back something incriminating they’d just now discovered.

“There you go,” Hugh piped, his eyes lighting up. “Perfect opportunity.”

Tom sighed loud. “Please don’t start giving me advice.”

A headlight flared and Tom spat out a deep coughed as he passed the high schoolers. His lungs burned right along with his calves. As he went by, he met eyes with one of the students. The stare felt cold – contemptuous, he thought. He felt his face twist in confused reaction.

But they were gone within a few seconds and he wasn’t sure what he’d seen, and he worked to convince himself that it had been, in fact, nothing. Tom preferred to give people the benefit of the doubt – to assume they were generally good.

Even though his experience didn’t really bare that out.

He couldn’t shake the inclination he’d gotten from the instant he saw the kid’s face, though. The boy was tall and thin, lanky with bones protruding in weird places in his face and elbows, like his skin was stretched too thin over a skeleton cobbled together from leftover parts, and his creator had been short on muscle and fat that day. He’d only seen the kid’s eyes for a millisecond, and they were obscured partially by a sweatshirt’s hood and growing purple darkness, but it been more of a feeling – a shockwave, a jolt of something awful and icy that leapt free of dark blue eyes and was carried down the wire of the boy’s stare.

As he thought about it, Tom realized what he was feeling, and it was familiar. He was feeling the coursing sting he always got when someone eyed him, when their gaze turned down off his eyes to his chin, his chest, his gut.

Despite his attempts to put the feeling away and write it off, something in Tom knew what he’d seen in the kid.

After all, people who run are running from something. A thing that chases them. A monster that threatens to swallow their identity and to make them into something they despair at being. They run from themselves – they’re fat alter-egos.

What nerve Tom had – the thought grew in his mind and he couldn’t shake it – that he, a fat guy, should try to rise above his station when the monster had already taken him. Too late, fatty, the high schooler had shot at him with all the power and accuracy of lightning. Know your place.

“I don’t know if I like her that much,” Tom lied. “We’ll see.”

The other men at the table laughed. Daphne was silent and Tom felt her watching him. It was a feeling he despised.

“Liar,” Hugh cracked between chuckles. Tom said nothing and the issue fell away as Hugh launched into another story. It turned out to be another long tale of college partying, and after a few moments, Tom realized he’d heard it. He excused himself to head to the bar for another drink.

Tom crossed the room carefully. He kept his eyes forward, refusing to fall into the trap presented by looking around the place and potentially meeting eyes with someone he knew. His face was obscured by green-hued dark and he aimed to keep it that way as he dodged wooden tables, which went from polished and classy like a library to covered in scrawled names and cheap witticisms, a classic bar attempt at community borne at low cost by sharpies and pocket knives.

It was strange, the difference between high school and now. It was as if, by graduating, everyone had come out of some tragedy together. The people he’d never known, people he’d never liked, they all talked to him as though they were old friends.

Tom hated the charade of it, and he couldn’t handle the small talk. What are you doing now, the inevitable question would arise between him and Person X, and he’d be forced to explain his meandering through community college, unsure of what to study or where he was headed. He also couldn’t handle the equally inevitable “Oh,” which inexorably carried a tone that said very clearly, “Oh – is that it?”

He reached the bar and took a seat in an empty stool while he waited. The bartender, a pretty woman in her early twenties who was wearing a tight black shirt that seemed to beg for tips, was scurrying around and he recognized that he would be last on the list of people to be served.

Tom stared down at the scarred wood and at his fingers laced over one another there. He was losing himself in thought, waiting for the bartender to look his way, when someone slapped the bar beside him loudly.

“Tom Carter,” a voice erupted and Tom felt his shoulders drop. He turned to see the flaring eyes set in a young, chiseled face. The guy was grinning widely, his thick neck stemming out of a sort of pinkish-purple polo shirt. Recognition came instantly.

“How the hell you doing, man?”

Tom smiled half-heartedly.

“All right, Brett. How’re you?”

“I’m great, man, just great,” Brett returned, jamming a hand toward Tom. His grip was vice-like and excessive, Tom thought. “Jesus, I haven’t seen you in, like, two or three years.”

“Yeah, not since high school,” Tom agreed. He looked for the bartender, but she was busy with a group of three guys that were clearly hitting on her, far at the other end of the bar. No escape offered there.

“So what’re you doing now?” Brett asked, still grinning. Tom recognized that the polo shirt was about a size too small – a calculation to show off Brett’s chest, which was far more defined and toned than Tom remembered.

“Same old stuff, going to school,” Tom replied in a short burst. He eyed the other man slowly. Brett had been popular in high school and always treated Tom like a piece of garbage. Of course, though, now that they were out, everyone in Tom’s senior class had been his best friend, he thought.

“That’s awesome,” Brett returned with glowing enthusiasm. “Man, I’m loving college. I’m studying fitness now. It’s awesome.”

Tom nodded along as Brett spewed practiced facts. He was annoyed at Brett’s presumption that he could be a dick for years and now pretend that it had never happened. Then again, Tom thought bitterly, there wasn’t much to do about it now.

“What’s your major?” Brett asked.

He could have said, “I’m between things,” or “I don’t have one,” or “I have no idea what I want to do with my life.” Instead, Tom intoned matter-of-factly, “Graphic design.”

It was a go-to response he used with people who didn’t matter. Brett nodded fast, his head bobbing up and down.

“That’s awesome,” he said fast. “That’s really cool, dude. Hey man, you been working out? You look good.”

Tom involuntarily smirked. Working out? He’d gained twenty pounds since he’d been out of high school. He hadn’t worked out in months.

But he lied again. This time it was involuntary, and Tom wondered to himself if he actually did look better. Lately he’d been trying to eat better, he reminded himself. “Yeah, once in a while.”

“Looking good, man,” Brett said. He was talking fast. “I’ve been doing this new workout program, Power Cross it’s called. There’s a whole six-day-a-week program, a diet program and a vitamin regimen. It’s awesome.”

“Awesome,” responded Tom quietly, holding
the irony in check.

He reached the end of the street, the drab rough setting for glowing, mirror-like reflective puddles and splashing raindrops, and Tom actually was feeling pretty good, despite those stupid high school guys. He’d gone further than he thought he could, and he’d only walked once so far.

Checking the street for oncoming traffic, he jogged across to the other side and doubled back toward home. There weren’t many people out anymore, which he preferred. Tom really dreaded an audience as he jogged, so much that it was often an excuse to keep him inside.

It still sucked. The blasts of pavement against his feet seemed to ripple up his body and make his spine hurt, his shoulders throb, and he could feel a headache starting. Still, he had too much reason not to stop. Tom gritted his teeth and his hands balled up tight as he went, but he was determined to make it back home.

“You know, I think a guy like you could really benefit from this vitamin regimen I know of,” Brett told him. He was giving Tom his full attention now, looking him right in the eyes, no longer concerned about waiting for the bartender to drop by.

Tom raised an eyebrow. Vitamins?

“They’re really great. I’ve read a lot about the way they amp up your metabolism, especially for heavier guys,” continued Brett, not missing a beat. “Especially if you’re working out. The whole thing comes with an appetite suppressant, a metabolic regulator – they’ll really help you, especially if you’re doing a sort of sedentary job, like working on a computer all day,”

He couldn’t even say anything as Brett rattled through his speech. Tom realized immediately what was happening – he was receiving a pitch.

Brett went to his shirt pocket and drew out a business card. He slid it toward Tom.

“Gimme a call sometime, man, or come in and I’ll hook you up. We can do a whole BMI-metabolism workup, complimentary.”

The card was in Tom’s hand and he stared at it, disbelief flooding his features.

“You want to sell me vitamins?”

He was almost home now.

His lungs were going crazy and Tom’s pace had been reduced pretty substantially by this point, but he was still moving, and that was a victory, he figured.

The sun had nearly disappeared and the sky had turned to black silhouettes stabbing high into deep blue. A few people were still out, but not many. Across the street up ahead, Tom recognized the same group of bike-riding high school kids plodding down the sidewalk. He kept his eyes straight ahead.

As he was passing them again, Tom felt the pavement below him pick up about two inches. His toe caught the lip and he pitched forward, the world careening around him in a blue-gray swirl. His mp3 player flew violently from his hand, followed by his headphones, as he threw his arms in front of his face and landed on the pavement with a scraping roll.

His hands burned and he could feel pebbles embedded in the skin. Tom was on his stomach and rolled a little. Blood trickled from scrapes on his knees and elbow. By some miracle, he thought, wincing, he hadn’t landed on his face.

Across the street, Tom distinctly heard laughter.

“I just figured, here’s a guy who I can help reach his goals,” Brett said, and now the facade was so obvious that it actually nauseated Tom.

Tom blinked.  He looked over the card – Brent Bauer, Independent Sales Associate, it read – and then down at himself. Was he really so fucking pathetic that this guy, who hadn’t talked to him in years, had looked at him and thought, “Here’s a jackass who must be so unhappy with himself that I can sell him in a bar?”

His eyes went to his hands. They were bloody and hurt, but what he was really feeling, vibrating through his skull and rattling his eyes, was the laughter. With a grimace, Tom rolled to his back.

The kids were still  there across the street, occasionally shouting taunts at him. Tom couldn’t really hear over the blood thumping in his ears from the adrenaline that had accompanied the fall. He got to a sitting position and looked to his right.

A tall man was standing there with a cigarette in a tan Marine uniform. His arms were crossed and he was looking straight at Tom. For a second, he expected the man to offer to help him up, and he couldn’t decide if it would be kind or humiliating. The other man said nothing, though, and Tom didn’t move.

After a second, the Marine took a puff on the cigarette and then re-crossed his arms.

“On your feet, son,” the Marine muttered, his voice gravely and guttural, but even and devoid of emotion. “Have some pride.”

A couple of long seconds passed while Tom let the words sink in. Then he brushed his palms clean of any bits of pavement and hauled himself up to his feet.

“Nothing broken,” the Marine said, and Tom recognized that he wasn’t asking. The man dragged his cigarette for a long moment, tossed it, and cocked his head back toward the building behind him. Tom followed the motion and read the sign that identified the building as a recruiting station. “Full disclosure,” said the Marine.

He stepped forward, stuck a hand in his pocket, and withdrew a card. He pushed it toward Tom, who took it with a slow, stinging hand.

“Give me a call – or don’t,” the recruiter muttered again. Then, as he turned toward the building, “Keep your head up.”

Tom crushed the business card in his hand, feeling the anger seething through his fingers. Brett’s face screwed up into confusion as Tom dropped the card on the bar.

He shot the confused salesman a grin. “Fuck you, Brett.” Then Tom stood up and left the bar. His plunged his hands into his pockets and kept his gaze down, slaloming through the tables and people until he reached his seat.

Hugh had everyone laughing as Tom dropped into his chair. Jason turned to him and said, “Where’s your drink?”

Tom shrugged.

“Was that Brett Bauer up there at the bar?” Demitri asked, and they all turned toward Tom. He frowned and nodded.

From Hugh: “What’d that asshole want?”

“Just shooting the shit,” Tom returned, looking at his hands. “Thinks because we went to the same high school we’re best friends.”

“What is that,” Hugh said, shaking his head. “Like nobody remembers what a jerk he was.”

“Yeah,” Tom replied.

“Did you tell him to fuck off?”

Tom watched the recruiter go in and looked down at the card. Hold your head up. Tom wiped his knees and picked up his stuff from the sidewalk.

They were still laughing and calling things at him from across the street as Tom put the ear buds back in. He ratcheted up the volume until he couldn’t even hear his own thoughts. It was a nice feeling.

Pain flared in his knees as Tom’s shoes splashed across the wet pavement. The pain felt good. Running felt good.

He sucked air into his aching lungs and found belonging in the gathering dark.

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